I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. Which do you want to hear first? I suppose I will begin with the good news because there is much less of it to share than there is bad news to break. But first some simple facts to set the scene.
The xx played the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night. It was their fourth(?) concert in DC of 2010. This time they were fresh off a prestigious Mercury Prize win (British album of the year) for their debut album and performing as headliners to a sold out 9:30 Club. Midwestern, indie-Goth revivalist Zola Jesus and L.A. art-rockers Warpaint were the opening acts. Zola Jesus played first.
Nika Roza Danilova aka Zola Jesus provided the lone bright spot in an otherwise dreadful evening on Tuesday night. Plucked from relative obscurity out of Wisconsin, Zola and her synth-band are the embodiment of word-of-blog success. I have been tapped into her bizarro tunes and operatic vocals for quite sometime; regarding her music as some of the most unique in the indie-pop landscape. My access to her music has been thanks to the wonders of the digital music age, but the part of my brain still stuck in the 90’s had me convinced that the odds on seeing her live were slim to none. No way this Opera/Synth/Goth freak-show* would have the legs to trek from Madison to DC. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that Zola Jesus’ star has risen high enough to get tapped by The xx as an opener.
Zola Jesus play synthesizer music with dramatic percussion behind Danilova’s opera-goth wailing. Their music on Tuesday night sounded a little more straightforward than on their ethereal, bizarre recordings but still provided an unsettling oddness that I found captivating. Danilova’s voice was strong through most of the set, but hit a few points of strain in the middle. It must be very demanding on the vocal cords to repeatedly perform as she does. I was surprised by the physicality of her performance. She rapidly paced the stage like a speed-dosed mouse in a cage, bobbed up and down in fetal position kneels, and milked her black shawl/hood/cape for all of its tattered flags in the wind glory. Zola’s set was like watching an exotic animal on display at a Victorian science exhibition. It was a fascinating glimpse of a young band whose strange sounds stand out among their indie peers.
Zola Jesus played to the club as it was slowly filling up with people. Good thing to, because the majority of the people that the club would eventually fill to the bursting point with would have just talked through her set and ignored her. While Zola Jesus represents the awesome and welcome power of the digital music era to break a band on a national level, The xx unfortunately illustrate its dark side. The ability to rake in ignorant, bandwagonesque “music” fans who have more interest in drinking beer and talking at shows rather than paying attention to the performers.
I do not begrudge The xx their success, not at all. But I was surprised and eventually horrified by the herd of assholes that this show brought in. I felt like I was stuck at a really lame raging kegger with really horrible, self-absorbed, jerks. I even saw some “bros” try to deny a guy in a wheelchair a spot on the floor! WTF DC?
Bad crowds can always put a negative spin on an evening of music regardless of its quality, but when the music sucks they can combine to make for an absolutely miserable experience.
Warpaint come out of the noisy, lo-fi, punk LA scene and have a pretty great reputation as a live band, so I was expecting to enjoy their set. I did not. Really the less I say about this disheveled band of female rockers the better, but I can’t resist. For the first two songs of their set, I was on board. If the female cast of Twins Peaks made a rock band and recorded an album dedicated to Wendy’s adventures with Peter Pan it would sound like Warpaint’s first two songs. Mostly instrumental, noisy, spunky rock tunes. As their second song progressed though and I watched the girls of Warpaint a little more closely, I started to get the sinking feeling that their presentation as down-to-earth, grungy rock girls was artificial. Something about their stage presence came off as rehearsed posing and that got me dreading their inevitable vocals. Sure enough, on the third song the vocals took over and the set took a nose dive; I’m not talking about the kind you can pull-up out of either, I’m talking full-on kamikaze into a warship.
Warpaint alcohol was your friend on Tuesday. Being drunk is the only way I could imagine anyone getting enthused enough to cheer aloud for for their whiny mess of a set. Beyond the first two songs, their music did not compare to the artfully employed noise of their peers, nor did it posses much of the spontaneous rock energy that they are known for. I found much of their set predictable and their singing flat-out awful. Warpaint’s performance on Tuesday night was akin to that of a mish-mash, college band I once saw who didn’t have the chops to place at Macrock, tried to host an unofficial basement show during the festival that drew a house full of people, and then let them down with amateurish prima-donnery, technical difficulties, and really lame music.*
Unfortunately I felt The xx were not much better. Their problem was even more offensive really. The xx debut album “XX” is a masterpiece of atmosphere and is one of the best albums in recent memory. In fact the album is so good it was awarded the Mercury Prize (Britain’s highest honor for recorded music). The album is an intimate tangle of sexy bedroom music with just enough of an engine to make for excellent walking along-a-river-bank music. Much like their distant ancestors Young Marble Giants, The xx have managed to employ minimalism to create terrific atmosphere and unique emotional music.
Going into Tuesday night’s set, I was wondering where The xx would go next musically. The status of their debut is now so elevated and revered that their as-yet unrecorded sophomore effort is already telegraphing “let-down”. If the set The xx performed on Tuesday night is any indication of the band’s future direction, I suppose based on the crowd reaction, they will be ragingly successful financially speaking. Artistically however may be another matter entirely.
To quote The Guardian: “The reason the panel of judges chose this album (for The Mercury Prize) could be distilled into one word, said chief of judges Simon Frith: ‘Atmosphere.‘”
The xx’s set on Tuesday was an affront to everything that makes their album an amazing creation. It came across as if they either completely misunderstand their own album’s appeal or they realize that they will never be able to match its genius and are simply making a giant cash grab while they still have positive buzz. The xx presented themselves as some kind of epic, spectacle, party, electronica act rather than even attempt to replicate the majesty of their debut. I had heard that The xx are uneven live and I was expecting some growing pains even at this show (which comes after almost 2-years of touring).*** But what I saw on Tuesday night wasn’t simply an off performance or awkward band adolescence; it was the display of a band in complete identity crisis and their music truly suffered for it.
I have no issue with spectacle when done right. But huge blinding white lights, neon X’s flashing, and frantic stand-alone high-hat cymbal solos are better suited for an Underworld concert than The xx. I suppose I should have seen their opening for Hot Chip a few months ago as an indication of where The xx are headed as a live show. Their in-your-face visuals were matched by a sound-mix that was atrocious. Everything was amped up to a-gazillion in an attempt to dance up the place and wound up sounding horribly uneven.
The whole “XX” album is full of wonderful, playful, sexy vocal verses traded off between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim; the tension of which is based in large part by the production value of the record. The vocal mix on Tuesday night was really unfortunate. Croft sounded fantastic, her vocals were that of a super-star. Sim’s on the other hand were mixed way back and low so that his voice was blending in with his bass to the point of being non-existent at times. When you could decipher what Sim was singing, his vocal volume was still that of a back-up singer rather than an equal partner. This was a massive failure because vocal equality is one of the keys to their album’s success. Without it the songs felt limp, which further deflated their overblown lights and music presentation.
I would not rush to blame the sound engineer of the show though. Everything in The xx’s presentation seemed by design, from the garish light-show to the absurd bass thumping, the focus seemed much more on PARTY! than on spotlighting their music’s strong points. I don’t know if this is a reinvention or just a logical conclusion for The xx. Their first shows in DC were at Sixth & I Synagogue and I wish I had been in town to see one of those intimate concerts. As their band profile has quickly risen over the past year, their audiences have swelled with loud-talking douche-bags; maybe their dedication to banging volume over atmosphere is simply a reaction to that. At best, the change in The xx’s sound is an attempt to be heard over the jerks; at worst, the band’s current direction seems to be catering to them.
* Said with love. of course.
** That was Macrock 2000 if memory serves correctly. I don’t remember that basement band’s name but gawd was that an awful night.
*** Your band should be tight as an airlock after 2 years of non-stop touring.